The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
Seeger to take folk tune spoils to the roots
Pete Seeger

New York, May 14 (Reuters): When Pete Seeger was recording songs like Wimoweh with the Weavers folk quartet in the 1950s, he didn’t give much thought to the fact the people who originally created the music generally got nothing in return.

Now Seeger is lending his name to the Campaign for Public Domain Reform, an effort to create a system for part of the royalties from folk tunes to reach the corners of the world where the songs originated.

If anyone in the music world has the moral authority to spearhead such a cause, it’s Seeger, who just turned 85.

In a performing career spanning more than six decades, Seeger was as likely to turn up at union halls, peace marches and picket lines as in large concert halls or on television.

He wrote or co-authored such anthems as If I Had a Hammer, Where Have All the Flowers Gone' and Turn! Turn! Turn! and he adapted and arranged other standards including We Shall Overcome and Guantanamera.

“When a song is in the public domain and you record it, it’s standard practice in the music industry to say ‘adapted and arranged by’ whoever sings it,” Seeger said in an interview. “Why let the record company keep all the royalties' They didn’t write the song.”

But who did' The answer isn’t always clear. Seeger said he was once told by Joseph Shabalala of the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo that when the word “traditional” is used, “it means the money stays in New York”.

“I didn’t want to become a famous person,” Seeger told Reuters from his home in Beacon, New York, overlooking the Hudson river. “I didn’t want to become rich. My wife and I were quite content to live on a few pennies here on the side of a mountain.”

The success of the Weavers following World War II took him by surprise, he said. The group’s 1949 recording of Leadbelly’s song Goodnight Irene sold two million copies, and the group also popularised such songs as On Top of Old Smoky, Kisses Sweeter than Wine and This Land Is Your Land.

But when Red hunters of the McCarthy era got wind of the political views and associations of some members of the Weavers, the group was blacklisted — banned from the airwaves and blocked from performing in most mainstream venues.

In 1955 Seeger was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he refused to say whether he had performed for Communist-sponsored events.

“I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody,” he told the committee.

His defiance earned him a one-year prison sentence for contempt of Congress — later overturned on appeal — and a hero’s place in the hearts of a generation of progressives and peace activists. Attending a Seeger concert became a political event in itself.

Seeger dropped out of the Weavers after a few years. “I just don’t like singing in nightclubs,” he said. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I don’t drink coffee. But I really wanted to help the peace movement and the union movement and the civil rights movement.”

Seeger said he now hopes to revise some of the autobiographical writings he published in years past.

“Now I can be more frank — how I was once in the Communist Party,” he said. “That was a little difficult 30 years ago. And I can also be more frank about other mistakes I made.”

Email This Page